Thursday, April 16, 2009


This is a difficult book to review, the reason being is that it has so many contradictory qualities. It has some good writing combined with material that is sentimental and even purplish.

It has some strong images, and it has a series of preposterous incidents. It is packed with improbabilities.

The author starts with a mini-version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," oddly hybridized with Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." While there is some nice writing here, it strikes me as self-consciously so, and the story lacks any freshness.

There are ridiculous improbabilities in this part of the book. Why would an English firm considering a business venture with a French firm send this young man, the protagonist, Stephen, to size up the opportunity? He isn't even educated in business. He is very young. And he proves emotionally unstable.

And why would the French proprietor - M. Azaire, husband of the beautiful woman, Isabelle, who becomes Stephen's lover - have Stephen spending time at lunches and other business of the floor workers in his plant? It's a genuinely silly idea.

The sentimentality begins shortly after Stephen and Isabelle become lovers, and, in cheap romantic fashion, Isabelle suddenly disappears with their young child, returning to her family.

When you get into the Great War, supposedly the real stuff of the book, you will wonder why you've had about ninety pages of rehashed Madame Bovary. You will find out towards the end, but it is a very unsatisfying idea of neatness and completeness that drives things.

Here and there in the war business, there are a few strong images and interesting stuff about the tunnel systems that were extensively used in the Great War.

But the author even manages to make the front sentimental and clichéd. Egad, there's even the proverbial friend who has never been with a woman and who is given the surprise present of a prostitute one night.

There's lots of hard drinking and calculatedly gruesome incidents - pure Hollywood. And the author has nothing fresh to say about the war we haven't all seen in movies or read in other books.

The end-of-war portion was clearly written with the hope of selling the book for movie rights. The idea of two men trapped in a huge tunnel far underground is gruesomely interesting, but the author draws it out to impossibly long time with an impossibly heroic series of efforts. People typically die after 3 or 4 days without water, but Stephen hangs in there for God knows how long.

Yes, he licks a bit of brackish water in a corner in his Herculean labors, but that just wouldn't do it.

His rescue would have been a good surprise - he is rescued by Germans digging in their own lines - had it been handled well. But we get an awkward effort by a couple of Germans, one of whom, we have explained at some length and repetition, happens to be Jewish. Why? Why is the author suddenly focusing on a man's religion? An intended irony about a good Jewish soldier in the German army? Whatever the intention, it simply does not work.

The ending is silly, the author bringing us what he regards as full circle.

I really do believe Faulks thought he was writing a racier, more action-filled "Gone with the Wind" for World War I in hope of a big movie contract.

I read this book wanting to like it, thinking from things I read that it might be another of those memorable books about people caught in the gears of war, but I found it impossibly flawed.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Not every historical character is so lucky in his biographer as Samuel de Champlain is in David Hackett Fischer. Fischer has tremendous good will and sympathy towards his subject, and that always makes a biography more pleasurable to read.

Champlain was an explorer, a mapmaker, an artist, a writer, a capable captain of people in difficult circumstances, an idealist, a seasoned soldier, and person of extraordinarily good temperament. In short, he was a French version of the fabled Elizabethan man, and with qualities of character superior to many Elizabethan men.

This is a very good book: it has a genuinely heroic subject in Champlain, and it tells a great story in vigorous language.

Fischer follows in part the example of Samuel Eliot Morison's "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," a venerable though somewhat dated biography of Columbus, by using his personal knowledge of sailing and the contemporary geography of Champlain’s New France to bring vivid life to his story and explain matters like the naming of certain places. Since I too know and have lived in some of these areas, I found this fascinating.

His treatment of the Indians of New France is refreshingly honest yet sympathetic, much in the spirit of Champlain himself, and by honest I’m including the very brutal aspects of aboriginal society sometimes overlooked today in sentimental history.

The book’s shortcomings are relatively small. Fischer is repetitive in small quantities at times, repeating some fact or observation offered not many pages before. This surely is the fault of a somewhat slack editor.

Another fault is in the somewhat poor reproduction of many illustrations, including a number of Champlain’s own drawings.

Fischer also does not tell us enough about certain matters such as Champlain’s marriage, a fascinating subject involving as it does a woman from a fairly distinguished French family who comes and spends time in New France. He briefly tells us how the marriage goes through ups and downs, but any reader will want a few more details filled in, if indeed such material exists in the records.

A significant book for Canadian history, the history of North American settlement and exploration, the history of North American aboriginal people, and all lovers of good biography and good yarns.